Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shut the Door, Keep Out ... Jesus?

Nowhere to Hide!

There is a striking contrast in the lectionary for the Second Sunday of Easter between John 20:19, when the disciples are huddled together behind doors locked in fear, and Acts 5:29, when Peter gives a bold witness to the exaltation of the crucified Jesus, saying, "We must obey God rather than men!" The fact of the crucifixion has not changed, so what has transpired that has so dramatically changed the disciples' outlook from fear to courageous proclamation and mission? On Pentecost Sunday, we are likely to claim that the difference in their outlook arrived abruptly with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (a dram of courage) at the birth of the church, but the first of today's readings suggests that the Holy Spirit's work on these disciples' hearts began somewhat earlier, within a day of the resurrection.

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Though I do not claim to understand the full depth of the terror that gripped the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion--the sort of terror that comes from having witnessed a dreadful miscarriage of justice while living under an authoritarian regime as a minority during times of civil unrest--we have all experienced fear, to one degree or another, rational or irrational, with credible basis or without. We have all experienced an emotional response to a perceived threat. And, if we are able, we take steps to escape or avoid that threat. That's what the disciples have done following the death of Jesus: they have identified what they perceive to be the external threat, "the Jews" (John 20:19; but because all these disciples of Jesus are also Jews [as was Jesus!], the phrase must be a kind of shorthand for "the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem" or the like). Reasonable or not, they perceive that they are in danger and so they have locked themselves behind closed doors to avoid the threat to their own lives from those who killed Jesus.

When my wife and I were first married, and again for a few years immediately after leaving graduate school, we lived in "cheap" apartments in what you might call the less affluent part of town. Though, statistically speaking, we were never realistically in any significant danger, we do have "fond memories" of these "good old days," of flying out of bed and hitting the floor at the sound of gunshots being fired. Whether the shots came from an apartment building or two down the street--and whether or not the sound really came from a backfiring car or a miscreant's late-night firecracker--we always overreacted. We called the police more than once. And we weren't alone in our fear; it was clearly shared by the previous inhabitants of each apartment. The one characteristic common to all three of these apartments was the number of "security locks" on the front door, a steel safety door. (They were installed before we moved in.) We regularly reinforced our sense of insecurity every time we slid the bolt ("click"), snapped the deadbolt ("click"), and snaked the chain into its chamber ("rattle, rattle, click"). We always ended with that last ounce of reassurance, by giving the little button in the center of the doorknob a quarter twist and grabbing on the handle to make sure it wouldn't turn. It took five minutes to open the door again on Friday nights for the pizza delivery man!

The point of it all was to keep the threat outside. But our fear also created a barrier between us and those whom we wanted to let in. When visitors came, which was rare, we found ourselves apologizing for keeping them waiting, half apologizing for locking the door in the first place, making jokes about how careful you have to be these days. "We can't let just anyone in," we'd say, or "you never know when someone might be up to no good." We'd recount as evidence for our judicious prudence the latest incident to hit the papers: someone robbed, someone mugged, someone raped or killed. Arriving home, "click, click, rattle, rattle, click, click" I would enter; and just as quickly, "click, click, rattle, rattle, click, click" we would lock the world out.

You would have thought we had reason to fear, reason enough to sing the bluesy, folksy spiritual: "Shut de do', keep out de debil!"

There were "devils" to avoid in our world, but mostly the kinds that aren't stopped by locked doors. And there were "devils" who wanted to stop these disciples from accepting their mission to spread the Good News about Jesus. But the greater threat to the propagation of the Gospel came from the disciples' own closed room, their shut door, their strong locks. If the Good News of the Gospel were to spread, the "shet do's" of these disciples had to swing wide open.

And since you are, I presume, post-resurrection Easter people, you'll surely know that Jesus is a master at opening sealed tombs. As Peter would soon find out, Jesus is able to spring prisoners (especially those who are self-imprisoned) out of tight jams. With grace--often where he is uninvited and "unbidden"--sometimes without even unlocking the door, Jesus makes his way into our locked rooms; he takes his place in the middle of our huddle and whispers a promise of peace that blows the bars off our windows and knocks the locks off our doors.

These disciples had been with Jesus for three years. They were prepared--afraid, for sure!--but also prepared to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. They knew how to live on the edge; they had seen the lame walk and the blind receive their sight, seen people fed, and seen demons cast out. And they didn't always just follow, watching from a safe distance; they had already participated in real ministry of their own. Jesus had given them missions, sent them out on early assignments that they had already accomplished.

But now, in the big city after a weekend of horrific violence, they are locked in an anxious huddle. (Don't get me wrong. There were indeed "debils" out there to fear.) But in addition to misdirected fear of "the Jews," maybe their heightened anxiety also had a little bit to do with the anticipated scorn and ridicule of friends and family. Maybe they dreaded a little eating crow and lying down in a bed they themselves had made. They had publicly risked everything to follow Jesus, had believed that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel. Someone of their friends and relatives would certainly look at them and say, "Where is your Lord and Savior now?" (The Gospel magazine, and theological review. Ser. 5. Vol. 3, no. 1-July 1874.) It was fear that had robbed them of their sense of peace; the world no longer seemed safe; so they had retreated inside and locked the doors. Their courage had died with Jesus and they had all but stopped living. Jesus had to perform a miracle just to get into the room where they were hiding and show himself to them.

Locks come in all shapes and sizes, and not just from the hardware store. It is quite natural when we have suffered some trauma in life, when we have been violated by some injustice, to lock ourselves away. When we suffer the death of a spouse, the loss of a friendship, the end of a relationship, the pain of estrangement from a loved one, rather than risk that pain again by loving again, we sometimes think it better--safer--simply to close the door, and click the lock; and, if you can't have love, at least you can have some degree of security from pain. But such a numbed existence is less than abundant life. For good students or people in careers they love, sometimes it is the fear of failure that locks the door. Better to shut down and stop trying, better to withdraw inside ourselves than to face yet another blow to our sense of self worth. For others the locks may take the form of illness, or fear of illness; financial difficulty, or fear of financial catastrophe. Job loss. Loss of mental acuity or physical strength. Fear of death.

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But Jesus will not let fear disable these disciples. He will not let them give in to despair. As Calvin says, "it is worthy of notice how gently Christ acted towards them, in not keeping them in suspense any longer than till the evening. He brings them the pledge of new life, while darkness was overspreading the world." (Commentary, Gospel According to John, vs. 19) Jesus comes in and puts himself right in the middle of their fear, their hopelessness, and their despair. He barges right into their defensive huddle. The first thing he says is "Peace be with you." In the Gospel of John, he says it three times in a few short verses, and over the course of a week. "Peace be with you" was not then quite so strange--or as strictly religious a phrase--as it may seem to us now. Shalom lekah / Shalom lakem," was then as now, the usual way to greet a friend in Hebrew--just as salaam alak is in Arabic. It is the equivalent of saying, "hi." Often it is phrased as a question: "Hi, how's it going?" That may be what it means the first time Jesus says it. The first time they hear him utter a word after the resurrection, "peace" may just be an ice-breaking "Hi!"

Just think about that the next time you pass the peace at church. We gather behind our closed (hopefully not locked!) doors, we are called to worship, and we confess, and receive an assurance of pardon. Then the resurrected Christ bursts into our defensive circle, right into our hopeless, helpless messes, and says, "Hi!" With every greeting of "peace" we receive and every "peace" we offer, the resurrected Christ may even today be breaking through our defenses to greet us the way he greeted these first disciples.

Perhaps even the first time, but certainly by the second time he utters the phrase--Peace be with you--the meaning must be shading toward an assurance. ("My Peace" already has a back story in John 14, esp. 14:27.) He's saying "it's ok" or "everything's going to be ok." And by the last time he says it, to Thomas--Peace be with you!--it may have an edge, "Relax, already! God is in control." Jesus is telling his friends to lift up their heads, to hope, and to believe. Even the brutality of the beatings, the crown of thorns, the violence of the cross, the slandering of evil leaders have no power to take away the shalom of God. Jesus breaks into that locked room to restore peace, to make everything right again, to bring back their faith.

"Peace" also means that Jesus did not return for revenge. He is not telling his disciples to go out and wage war against his enemies. He simply reiterates his mission and theirs, to bring wholeness from the Father into a world wrecked by sin and evil and violence. Peace! Here they are, locked in by fear, and Jesus shows up to say no, no, no--unlock that door! Why? So that Jesus can come in? No. The resurrected Jesus already stands in the middle of their protective circle; he tells them to unlock the door because he is sending them on a mission. No more hiding in that room. No more hiding in our churches. No more hiding from our neighbors. Open the door and bring resurrection wholeness and peace to a world that so desperately needs it. How? How can we give peace to a violent world? By proclaiming forgiveness of sins. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20:23) Tired of doubt and fear? Want peace? Then unlock that "shet do'" of forgiveness. Go out into the world and forgive the Sanhedrin, and Pilate, and Caesar, and the soldiers.

Were the disciples able to do what Jesus asked? Did they let go of the doubt and fear? Did they open the doors? Did they go as commissioned? Did they forgive? Yes! Acts 5 recounts the second or third arrest of Peter and John and the other disciples in about as many days. Having been warned and then thrown into jail for preaching, they are sprung by an angel, and go right back to work, teaching publicly in the temple. When the council and elders send temple police to the prison to have Peter and his co-agitators ("peace"-niks) brought for a hearing, the temple police find the prison doors securely locked ("click, click, rattle, rattle, click click") and guards standing at the doors, but when they open the doors, they find the cell empty. No one is inside. Where are Peter and the disciples? They are standing again in the temple, teaching and preaching forgiveness in the name of their Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. We and the Holy Spirit are witnesses, Peter says, God raised him from death and exalted him. We and the Holy Spirit are witnesses. We cannot stay "shet up," doors locked, life over. The angels opened up our prison and told us to proclaim the message of life.

What an amazing task God gives to us, to preach peace and forgiveness to a warring world. Here we are, locked up in this place on the Second Sunday of Easter. The empty tomb was just the beginning, the first opened door. Jesus enters the places where we gather, sometimes even without our unlocking the door, and brings us the promise of peace, the whispered breath of life, that blows the bars off our windows and knocks the locks off our doors. What had terrified us in his absence is now dispelled by his presence as he says to each of us, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." We have doors to open, a mission to accomplish, good news to sing. Easter is not over; it has only just begun.

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